Midterm Races Starting Early

2009 political spending proving surprisingly robust

While even the more pessimistic prognosticators are forecasting blockbuster political spending on television in 2010, the nation's increasingly polarized political landscape is resulting in an unexpectedly robust 2009. Both sides continue to pour money into the contentious health-care debate, and a few torrid governor's races are critically important to both sides of the aisle in determining how people will vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

“The political [money] is certainly coming in for an off-year,” says TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG President Evan Tracey. According to Tracey, $725 million has been spent on TV thus far, with $1 billion likely by year-end: “2009 is clearly going to be a healthy year.”

The primary recipients include the New York City stations, benefiting both from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $25 million effort to retain his current job and a heated governor's race in New Jersey. States with moderate Democratic leadership in the Senate are getting a healthy taste of the $140 million spent on health-care-related advertising, which shows no signs of subsiding. Then there's Virginia, which emerged as a swing state in the presidential election and is hosting a cutthroat governor's race.

Tracey says the two gubernatorial races are “deeply punditized”—they've garnered way more interest than past off-year contests, as both Democrats and Republicans are desperate to score an early win and set the tone for the midterm elections. “All eyes are on Virginia,” says WWBT Richmond Regional VP/General Manager Don Richards. “The election seems to be critically important to both parties—they see it as a peek inside the American psyche.”

Virginia stations are also benefiting from races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Throw in some issues money, and Richards says 2009 might even surpass the political spending in 2008 at the station.

While 2009 may not have a big-ticket ballot measure, such as California's Proposition 8 on same-sex marriage, smaller regional issues are ringing stations' cash registers around the country. Ohio, for one, has the casino measure Issue 3 playing out on local television. “It's been a fairly active political market,” says WKRC Cincinnati VP/General Manager Les Vann. “It hasn't completely made up for the [revenue] drops seen across the country, but it's certainly helped.”

Wells Fargo Securities forecasts more than $2 billion in political spending on local television next year. Tracey says 50 to 80 House seats will be up for grabs, as will a number of high-profile Senate spots including ones in Massachusetts and New York, plus 37 sets of keys to governors' mansions.

With Democrats and Republicans alike desperate to either defend or win back vital seats, it's never too early to start talking up one's candidate. “There's a lot of motivation for party money and outside money,” Tracey says. “It's all about winning the day.”